Taking a cold plunge into Lake Michigan during winter may be intimidating, but for some people, the benefits are beyond worth it. Meet Laura Mason, a Leelanau-based chef and food blogger who is using cold water therapy to help treat her chronic pain.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

It takes a lot of pluck to get into Lake Michigan when the water temperature is hovering around 34 degrees, the wind chill has dipped below 0 and ice chunks are bouncing along the shoreline. But for Laura Mason, the benefits are worth it.

Laura uses cold water therapy to reduce pain and inflammation caused by her rheumatoid arthritis. Last fall and winter, she swam for 171 consecutive days in Lake Michigan, beginning in September. When the water started to freeze in February, she purchased a portable tub to continue her outdoor soaks at home. Today, she takes cold dips three to four times a week—but even now it takes grit. “Honestly, I still have some anxiety when I get into cold water. I don’t know if that ever goes away … though it’s becoming easier to calm my anxiety.”

Woman about to jump into Lake Michigan to do a cold plunge

Photo by Laura Mason

Woman in the cold water of Lake Michigan

Photo by Laura Mason

Woman taking a cold plunge in Lake Michigan

Photo by Laura Mason

Her in-water ritual helps. When Laura submerges up to her shoulders, her heart skips a beat and for a split second, she loses her breath. When the “stomach flutters kick in,” she starts the ritual, saying a prayer to God and giving thanks to the water. “I started to look at [the water] as a friend,” Laura explains. “I would say, ‘Hey, thanks for showing up with me today. I appreciate that support.’ And eventually, my gratitude toward the water also became a prayer. I thanked it for being with me, holding me and hugging me.

On Instagram and her blog, Love Chef Laura, she writes about the physical and mental health benefits of cold-water therapy, tips for getting started and her journey of navigating autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s and vitiligo. She also shares recipes for all diets—dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free, vegan and more—inspired by her lifelong love of food and training in French culinary school.

Woman taking a swim in Lake Michigan on a snowy day

Photo by Laura Mason

Through sharing her story, Laura has met a community of autoimmune warriors. She’s received photos of people cold dipping with family members on Thanksgiving, which has become a tradition, and emails from those who can now walk their dogs with less pain—for the first time in years—thanks to HOKA running shoes that Laura recommends. “The autoimmune community is incredible and so intense,” she says. “I am inspired by so many, and if I can help one person live a better life while battling an autoimmune disease, even if it’s something ‘small’ such as taking a walk, it puts a big smile on my face.

Woman taking a cold plunge in Lake Michigan during a sunrise

Photo by Laura Mason

Woman ice bathing in Lake Michigan

Photo by Laura Mason

Photo(s) by Laura Mason